My Life 5.3

 Live Volcanoes in a Row! Petropavlovsk – Kamchatskii

 I continue my Far East travels and visit Kamchatka



We stood in the airport at Khabarovsk. Looking at a map of the area. I was surprised to see that we were closer to the North Island of Japan than we were to Vladivostok. We were about to catch a flight to Petropavlovsk, on the southernmost tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, almost due east from where we were. Life was calmer here than Moscow and more organised, possibly because our potential business partners were travelling with us. “Of the hundred volcanoes on the peninsula, more than twenty are live.” Yuri told me.

 It was a couple of hours over the sea of Okhotsk. After a nice, leisurely flight we touched down at the most amazing airport I have ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, it was a one-story airport terminal and one runway on a flat plain. But on the edge of the plain was a row of snow-capped volcanoes, stretching away. Stepping from the plane, I can still remember the crisp air in my lungs, the clean, blue sky, and those towering volcanoes!  It was spring, the ground was clear of snow and the first flowers about to appear.

 Here, our partners had a small bus to transport us. We drove into town. Petropavlovsk looked like pictures of those old industrial fishing ports, with buildings and warehouses piling up to the waterside. Everything was businesslike, practical and utilitarian. It is here that all those crab are landed - pick up a tin of ‘King crab’ in the supermarket and read where it comes from. On the harbour side, with a beautiful backdrop of snowy volcanoes, was the Lenin statue, the one with his right arm outstretched, as if calling people on, and his coat flying. Very impressive!

 All the vehicles were high off the ground, with big wheels. The snow had gone now, but it was still overcoat weather – fresh!  As I descended in front of our Hotel, Yuri told me that this was the first year it had been open to ‘tourists’, i.e. foreigners.  It wasn’t bad, by Russian standards, so presumably it had previously been reserved for Party officials and Navy officers. As I gazed from the window, one thing struck me. There were people scurrying about, crossing the square in front of the hotel. All the women wore raincoats. All the raincoats were identical – a nice shade of purple! My eyes rose from the square, up and into the distance - wow! There was a nice feel in the air.


Yuri’s number two asked us “You want crab?”  Several of us nodded enthusiastically. He looked slightly apologetic. “You will have to give me twenty dollars,” he said, “sorry!”  Bob dipped into his company’s petty cash stash. The five days we were there, we dined very well and at every meal there was crab, great stringy lumps of flesh many inches long and fresh off the boat each day. At one point we had a banquet with the town dignitaries, where I had to give the traditional “this is the best place on earth, you are the most wonderful friends a man could have and I am deliriously happy” speech. All 30 of us had crab, along with much other tasty stuff, including caviar. The best for me was coming down to breakfast every morning and having bacon and eggs…… with crab! We reckoned it was pretty good value overall.


We stood on a hill overlooking the harbour as an enormous black shape moved on the surface of the bay, leaving an arc of white wake behind it. It was a nuclear submarine. This was an eastern submarine base for the Russian Navy and the reason why the town had been closed to foreigners until recently. Then I spotted a curious ship. It was covered in cars! They seemed to be piled up on the deck. Yuri explained. “In Japan, they have a very stringent test after three years, so it is easier for the Japanese to buy a new car - these are the old ones.”  “Are they cheap?” I asked. Yuri grinned “Yes, very cheap, of course.” This explained all the relatively new right-hand drive Japanese cars that filled the streets. “It is the captain’s perk.” Yuri told me. ‘Perks’ seemed to be all the rage in the new Russia. A ‘partner’ in another area seemed to have attained the wherewithal to help fund a joint venture when the central government collapsed and an oil tanker leaving Vladivostok was diverted, or so I was told.


“Would you like to have bath?” Yuri asked. The cheek of it! I thought. “A visit to the hot baths?” He continued. Oh! “Yes, that would be nice!” That evening, we all set out in the bus. We arrived at a dilapidated building in the middle of some woods, with a big wire fence round it.  The facilities were minimal, but there was an enormous steaming pool, with rusty pipes around the sides and valves you could turn on. These valves released streams of sulphurous bubbles underwater and jets of even hotter water. It was great, much like the baths I’d been to in Japan, but far more functional. The establishment obviously had some kind of medical function, as the elderly women attendants who brought us the threadbare towels wore white nurse’s uniforms. After a refreshing bath, we staggered out, dried and dressed. Yuri’s two pals were in the woods, collecting herbs. They came back and mixed them in a big pot with chunks of pork, and some kind of oily sauce. Then they brought out some long swords, which they spiked the chunks on. A fire had been lit and they roasted the pork over the burning logs, glowing and covered in grey ash. There was a canteen where we sat down. Vodka and champagne appeared, salads and cold meat, vegetables, pickles, treats. No crab here! After some time, the barbecued chunks of meat appeared and we ate them as well.  Delicious shashlik! I looked at the champagne bottles. Only the best for these guys! Russian champagne was delicious and cheap. Wherever it came from, it had the same label, a standardised product. But if you knew, were a ‘cognoscenti’, you looked at the label on the neck. Uniquely this label had a different, tiny, picture of grapes on it. Nothing you would normally notice. But this meant it came from Georgia - and this was reputed to be the best champagne in Russia.


Next day we went to Elizovo, a town on the other side of the airport, to meet the Mayor. He was a nice chap. It was a nice town - relaxed, broad main street, low buildings. He explained that they were hoping to open the area to tourists for skiing. (Check the web, it’s there!).  Also, it appeared that the Japanese were very keen to buy black glass, a volcanic sand which they used to make fibre optic cables of the highest quality, in Japan. The Mayor told me the Japanese would not place a manufacturing plant locally to benefit the area, despite his pleas, and offers of land and support. However, there was a plant which made bottles, which they shipped all over the world. Unfortunately, some global bottle sizes were changing and they had no money to change the machinery, so their market was falling. Such was life in post – curtain Russia.


When we left, several other flights had been cancelled. However, our plane appeared to be waiting when we were delivered to the ‘Executive Departure Lounge’ - a new portable building away from the main terminal. There we were served champagne and vodka, and I bought a very nice necklace for my wife. Yuri and his colleagues took a bottle of champagne and all signed the label with their best wishes, and presented it to me. I eventually drank it after I had got back home to England, remembering them, the very nice Far East, and those volcanoes! I also toasted my Client, who actually paid me to travel to interesting places like Kamchatka.

We were in invited to board our plane, which involved a walk across the Tarmac. I was taking in my last sight of the volcanoes. I really loved them! The anxious voice of the stewardess rang out. “Hurry please!” Wondering what the panic was about, I looked round. From the main terminal building, a rabble of people was charging towards the plane, some carrying big boxes with Japanese TV’s. By the time we got to the steps, the three stewardesses were having a job holding the first arrivals back. They shouted to us to hurry – Russian women always shout very loudly when harassed! Funny, but the men don’t. We scrambled up the steps and were shown to our seats while they held the tide at the bottom of the steps- then the rest came on board. On the nine-hour flight due west, back to Moscow, we were served two forgettable meals. One was a chicken breast with a little gravy and a slice of black bread, all in a plastic box. Oh, and water in a plastic cup. No paper in the toilets. On board were animals - a giant dog, with his master who was an army officer, and also a puppy, which ran up and down the aisle occasionally with a little boy chasing him. But everyone was chatty and friendly, coming up and asking who we were and what we were doing, including the little boy, quite different from Moscow Russians. At a point in the flight approaching Moscow, Bob got up to take some photos of us. There was a bit of discussion. When I asked about it, Vlad told me that some people were saying it was not allowed. Others said it was OK these days. He said that he thought it was because we might accidentally take a photo of something secret through the aircraft window! (I had the same experience on the Petersburg subway when I went there for ‘White Nights’ – but that’s another story – and it was underground!).

 There was little difference between Soviet Military Pilots and Civilian ones. Their flying was not ‘passenger-friendly’. As soon as Domodedovo hove into view, the Pilot banked to the left (we all gripped the armrests); rapidly dropped down sideways (we all rose up against our seatbelts); levelled out (we all were pressed down in our seats); straightened up (we all leaned to one side) then dropped her down with a thump (our teeth slammed together); applied full brakes, swerved off the runway, bounced rapidly to the parking spot, pulled on the handbrake and turned off the engine. I swear he was out of that plane before we were! Must have had a hot date!

 So I was back in Moscow. I was going home that weekend but would return in ten days, while the team made a visit to Nizhniy Novgorod without me. “What’s the next trip I’ve booked in on?” I asked Bob. He consulted his schedule. “Samara.” He said “Third city in Russia, also called Kubyschev. It’s on the Volga.”

 “Right, let’s get to the office and get all the reports sorted out then.” I said, looking forward to my next little excursion in this unknown, surprising, land. Sometimes it was frightening. But that didn’t keep me away.


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